When daily life becomes too much to bear for the button-down professionals in Harvey Fierstein’s new Broadway play, Casa Valentina, these gents escape to a resort hideaway in the Catskills mountains of upstate New York — and trade in their jackets and ties for cocktail dresses, pearl necklaces, and size-14 pumps.
Drag Queens? Think again. They are straight, married men, more likely to remind you of your maiden aunt or fourth-grade schoolteacher than a glamorous movie icon. It’s 1962 and these guys aren’t warbling a forlorn love song in a Greenwich Village dive or glitzing out in sequins in a cabaret show. They are a group of individuals who, each in his own way, just wants to be comfortable being who he is.
“You look at these people and you might even be laughing at them a little, and hopefully you realize, oh my God, that is me,” says Fierstein. “They are just wanting to be happy, just as you are.”
Fierstein, of course, needs no introduction. The actor-playwright with the unmistakable raspy voice made a splash on Broadway in 1982 with Torch Song Trilogy, winning an unprecedented pair of Tony Awards for acting as well as playwriting. In 1984, by the time he turned 30, he had won a third Tony, for the book of La Cage aux Folles. He received his fourth Tony for playing the female lead in the musical Hairspray. He also wrote the bookwriter of two current hit musicals, Newsies and Kinky Boots. Casa Valentina marks his first new play on Broadway in two and a half decades.
“The play is really about this group of gentlemen who created this protective place — a beautiful, peaceful place — where they can be themselves without fear of judgment and without fear of being arrested, because it was still illegal to dress in drag, you know,” Fierstein continues. “Many of them brought their wives, some of them brought their children, to the resort. The more I found out about who these men were I became fascinated by their story and I wanted to bring them out to an audience; they feel so uncomfortable in men’s clothing that they have to put on women’s clothing so they can breathe.”
The real-life counterparts of the men in Casa Valentina sought refuge in the Chevalier D’Eon resort (later relocated and renamed Casa Susanna), located 100 miles northwest of New York City. The Brooklyn-born playwright says he had actually heard about the resort when growing up in the early 1960s. “My father was born near the Catskills so we went to that area a lot,” he reports. “We had heard rumors that there were men dressed as girls there, but across the road there was a nudist colony, and we kids were more interested in seeing the naked people.”
He was reminded about the community of transvestites more recently when producer Colin Calendar, a former head of HBO Films, proposed that he write a script based on a book of photographs which depicted men dressed as ordinary women relaxing and having fun at the Catskills resort; the trove of photos had been discovered by collector Robert Swope and his partner Michel Hurst in a Manhattan Flea Market in 2004. Fierstein says he wasn’t initially interested in pursuing the project, which was intended to be a light and fluffy comedy. But he changed his mind after he started doing research into the forgotten bungalow community.
Fierstein set the action of his play over a single weekend in the summer of ’62, because it was a key year in an era of social change, he explains. He mentions the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permitted the mailing of nude or near-nude photos of male models, lifting their classification as pornography. That Halloween, researchers from the Kinsey Institute visited the resort to film a cross-dressing event as part of the famed sexology organization’s scientific studies of a transvestite organization called the Hose and Heels Club, which shortly after became the sorority Tri-Ess, a national organization that exists to this day.
To give faces and voices to the forgotten world of the Chevalier D’Eon resort (which was named in honor of an 18th century cross-dressing French diplomat, solider and spy), he drew from his research and the memories of Katherine Cummings. Now in her late seventies and living in Australia, Cummings was an occasional visitor to the resort during its heyday. “At the time she was a heterosexual man who liked to wear dresses and express a female personality; much later she had surgery and is now physically a woman — a transsexual,” Fierstein explains. “She went up there a few times only, but she was part of the community.” He acknowledges her guidance with a note in his script that reads, “None of it is true, but all of it is accurate.”
“There are different personalities in the play,” Fierstein continues. “Some are satisfied just dressing up on the weekends, and that’s ok with them. The two leaders of the group, Charlotte and Valentina, they are both driven to want more. Just like gay people, there are those who want to walk in the sun and there are others that are quite comfortable keeping it compartmentalized. What I realized is that in this tiny little group you had all of this variety which made me stop and think — first of all, we are all just human beings and, secondly, no two of us should be lumped together in sub-group. The truth is that none of us are the same. We are all individual, different creatures. The struggle to be who you are, the individual you are meant to be – that’s the universality of being a human being.”
Director Joe Mantello (Take Me Out and Wicked) has assembled a stellar cast of New York theater stalwarts to portray the community of Casa Valentina: John Cullum, plays the oldest member of the group; Patrick Page, seen most recently as the Green Goblin in Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, plays Valentina – he is the owner of the resort, which he runs with his wife Rita (Mare Winningham); Larry Pine plays a judge in the outside world who only answers to the name of Amy when he’s at the resort; Lisa Emery plays Eleanor, his daughter; Reed Birney plays Charlotte, whose political ambition is to legitimize the group as a non-profit organization; Gabriel Ebert, Tom McGowan and Nick Westrate complete the ensemble.
With Casa Valentina starting performances next month, Newsies, now past its second year, and Kinky Boots, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, Fierstein will have three shows running currently on Broadway. The playwright says he wrote all three works more or less concurrently. “I don’t think I will ever do that again – giving birth every year for three years has been quite a challenge, but I love that all three shows have such different things to say about the world we live in. I watch the kids in the audience getting that message of empowerment in Newsies, which says that even as an individual you have a right to say what kind of world you want and charges young people to take over the world. Then you go over to Kinky Boots and there is a story about two men who are damaged by the expectations of their fathers, who find each other and find acceptance of themselves in healing each other. And now Casa Valentina – what I really hope for in the play is that in these people who look and act a little strangely to you at first glance, you see yourself in them. Their struggle is your same struggle — to live.”